The Battle for Crimea

21 September 2012, 15:18

The Crimea, a strategically important peninsula dominating the Black Sea, is a highly complex territory geopolitically, ethnically and historically. It is a meeting point for European and Asian influences and a crossroads for Christianity in its eastern and western forms and Islam. Slavic, Turkic and Hellenic-Roman worlds can still be felt, holding the mental remnants of the Roman-Byzantine, Ottoman and Russian empires and the Crimean Khanate while the former influences of the Ukrainian Princely State and the Ukrainian Hetman State are still recognizeable. In nearly 250 years under Russian rule, which is not that much from the standpoint of history, Crimea has become an important component of geopolitical and historical complexes in the Russian psyche. Russian mass media outlets publish and broadcast much more about this little peninsula barely discernible on the world map than they do about the Far East, a huge region that is much more important to Russia as it borders on the USA and secures the status of a superpower for the Russian Federation. The same mass media speak about the “subversive activities” of Ukrainians in Crimea much more frequently than about real stories about creeping, relentless Chinese expansion in eastern Russia.


Crimea has a special place in the Russian collective consciousness, because it is a powerful national myth which as been artificially created and supported by state propaganda for over 200 years. The Crimea is a sacral symbol of imperial victories, the rule of Catherine II and confrontation with the West in the 19th and 20th centuries. This peninsula was a bridgehead for the Russian Empire in its attacks on Constantinople, the Bosporus and the Dardanelles under Alexander II, Alexander III and Nicholas II. Later it became an unsinkable Soviet “aircraft carrier”.

Crimea turned into a centre of military-imperial propaganda and military glory despite the fact that Sevastopol was captured by various armies seven times out of eight attempts and the British-French occupational administration operated in the peninsula for two years in the 19th century. It is a remarkable phenomenon when failures miraculously turn into heroic victories in people's consciousness, but that is the art of propaganda influence.

Another large success of this propaganda is the opinion that “the Crimea has always been Russian”. The true fact is that this territory was absorbed by the Romanov-ruled empire fairly recently and since then its undesirable population has been subjected to multiple bouts of ethnic cleansing and deportation. It was only after these ignominious acts that Russians became an ethnic majority in the Crimea. Organized and spontaneous mass migration of Russians to the peninsula played an important part in this process. In 1954, the Crimean Republic was excluded from the Russian Soviet Republic and made part of the Ukrainian SSR. Curiously, there are no records of its Russian-speaking population protesting at the time.


With the breakup of the USSR, Ukraine inherited a series of painful problems in Crimea. Some originated in the Russian Empire, while new ones arose shortly before the demise of the totalitarian superpower. In an effort to counteract the growing sovereignty of the Soviet republics, Mikhail Gorbachev, the first and last president of the USSR, chose the peculiar tactic of granting autonomous entities equal rights with the republics. This created a number of problems for Georgia with its three autonomous regions, Azerbaijan with its Karabakh, Uzbekistan with Karakalpakia and Tajikistan with Badakhshan. However, Boris Yeltsin, leader of the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic, had the biggest headache because autonomous entities accounted for 51 per cent of his republic’s territory. Ukraine, the second most important republic in the USSR, did not have autonomy for Crimea. So, with a sympathetic attitude of the central Soviet government, the Crimean party nomenklatura also began to propose restoring the Crimean Autonomous SSR (which existed in 1921-45 as part of Soviet Russia. – Editor). Of course, they had a new format in mind, because the former republic was set up with consideration of the Crimean Tatar factor which was essentially the only justification for the autonomous status.

The revived republic set the goal of completely ignoring the Tatar factor. Crimean party bosses had no desire whatsoever to share power with the Tatars who were returning from exile at the time. This was precisely the difference between the newly created political-administrative entity and its prewar predecessor in which the Crimean Tatars had a de facto 30 per cent quota in all administrative bodies. But if Leonid Kravchuk, then head of the Supreme Council of the Ukrainian SSR, had spoken resolutely against such actions and threatened Moscow with a sharp reaction, there would probably have been no autonomy for the Crimea. But instead of a steadfast and resolute position Kravchuk demonstrated his patented “moderate approach” (read cowardice). With Kyiv showing no strong position, the Crimea held a referendum on restoring the Crimean Autonomous SSR with predictable results. The Crimean Regional Council became the Supreme Council of the republic and was headed by experienced party apparatchik Mykola Bahrov. The regional executive committee became the Crimean Council of Ministers, and chiefs of regional departments received the status of ministers. Their administrative status was enhanced; their salaries grew; they received more bonuses and privileges. Thus, several hundred bureaucrats experienced an immediate improvement in living conditions. But the absolute majority of Crimean residents saw no improvement whatsoever, and so the local authorities fiercely argued that autonomy had saved them from “Banderite occupation” and “terror”. Crimea became a centre of separatism and political instability for many years to come.


The Crimean “elite” had a special standing in the Soviet party nomenklatura. They were, of course, unable to claim the same formal status as the elite from the Urals or Leningrad. But there was a special category of “resort secretaries” in the party – these were party bosses in Krasnodar Krai, Stavropol Krai and Crimea. Politburo members, Central Committee secretaries, top officials in the Council of Ministers and other influential bureaucrats would visit resorts in these regions. This presented the local party bosses with a unique opportunity for unofficial communication with the Kremlin’s bigwigs, which often helped them solve many problems. This is one of the factors that explains Gorbachev’s superfast career growth. He was in charge of Stavropol with its famed resorts in Pyatigorsk, Yessentuki and Mineralnye Vody. This is where Politburo member and KGB chief Yuriy Andropov regularly went on holiday and received medical treatment.

The “resort secretaries” had sizeable social capital in the Soviet Communist Party, and the Crimean bosses tried to preserve it at all costs. At the same time, they desperately manoeuvred between Moscow and Kyiv, pursuing their own egoistic interests and reviving the old adage about an obedient calf that sucks two dams. The only difference was that here the calf was remarkably impudent.

Impudent, but only to a certain limit. The Crimean nomenklatura never dared to broach open conflict with Kyiv, understanding that the property they had on the southern coast of the Crimea would suffer if Ukraine and Russia engaged in warfare in this region. This was in fact the factor that helped avoid the Abkhasian, Transnistrian and South Osetian scenarios. Moscow, too, wanted to realize its interests in other ways. Crimean separatism is different from other similar movements in the former USSR in that it is artificial and completely depends on Russian support. As soon as Moscow stops stimulating it, it begins to decline and degenerates into a marginal phenomenon.

Afraid of competition for power with the Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian administrative clans from Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, Kharkiv and Lviv, Bahrov and his lieutenants tried to always use the trump card of having “special relationships” with Moscow. With its largely Russian ethnic background, the Crimean nomenklatura have a certain nostalgia and the habit of looking up to Moscow as the centre of world civilization. But an objective consideration of all the pros and cons led it to the conclusion that life in Ukraine was good enough.


In this sense the so-called counter-elite in Crimea is much more dangerous. It has been purposefully cultivated by Moscow for the past 20 years and has emerged out of constant confrontation with Ukraine. Before 1991, all of the people in this elite were virtually nothing, but they gained significance with the aid of the Kremlin. One of them is Yuriy Meshkov, the first and last president of the Crimea and former AK-47 shooting champion in the Soviet KGB. Serhiy Tsekov and a few dozen others did not hold any important offices before Ukraine became independent. Under the cover of Moscow, they stoked political pressure in order to have the Crimean Supreme Council pass the dubious act on “the independence of Crimea” on 5 May 1992 in Simferopol. A decision to hold the Crimean Referendum on this act was adopted earlier. Later, when they grasped that things had gone too far, they cancelled the regulation on the referendum of their own accord.

The focus of the struggle for Sevastopol and Crimea soon moved to the Black Sea Fleet, which had an officially undetermined status until 1997. In this struggle, the Russian government, the management of the Black Sea Fleet, the Crimean Supreme Council and the Sevastopol City Council acted in a coordinated and almost synchronous fashion. A key contributing factor to the process was the Crimean Constitution of 1992 which proclaimed the peninsula “an independent state entity within Ukraine”. This formulation was, of course, paradoxical, but the communists loved it. Indeed, an independent state cannot be part of Ukraine, and if it is, it cannot be independent. However, official Simferopol interpreted it in the following way: the Crimea is part of Ukraine formally but not de facto. It was very convenient to be ruining the young Ukrainian state from within.

The limited Crimean experience of federalizing Ukraine showed how dangerous this road could be. Almost uncontrolled by the centre, Crimea balanced on the verge of a civil war for several years. Several paramilitary groups with extremist slogans emerged immediately. All latent ethnic and denominational conflicts were aggravated. Criminal groups waged war against each other using automatic weapons. The criminal rings Seilem and Bashmaki were formed at that time, and the Christian Liberal Party founded by Sevastopol criminal boss Yevheniy Podanov was nearly eliminated physically by rival bandits. It was jokingly referred to as “the party of the executed”. Very few businessmen wanted to invest in the region.

The Constitution opened the way to power for Meshkov. He began to quickly transform Crimea into something similar to Transdnistria, Abkhasia and South Osetia by forming the Crimean special services and military detachments and trying to subordinate the local departments of the SBU and Interior Ministry to himself. Meshkov was in constant contact with the General Staff of the Black Sea Fleet and in direct contact with Moscow. (A number of former Moscow officials were on this government, and later this tactic was widely used under Vladimir Putin in South Osetia). This suggested that Crimea could break out of Kyiv’s control at any time.

It would be interesting to know whether President Viktor Yanukovych is aware of these facts. His protégé Anatolii Mohyliov, Prime Minister of Crimea, has set up a working group to develop a new scheme for “expanding the authority” of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. Yuriy Kliuchkovsky, lawyer and MP, has already dubbed this scheme “a law on Crimea's exit from Ukraine”. It is hard to fight against separatism when it is being provoked and encouraged by the central government. The Ukrainian Week has written about the dangerous scenario that can take place in the Crimea and explained why the Party of Regions needs it.

Back in 1996, Kyiv managed to stop Meshkov, and then-Prime Minister Yevhen Marchuk should be given credit for that. With great effort and after numerous mistakes, Ukraine eventually won the battle for Crimea at the end of the 20th century. Now, if Yanukovych does not stop Mohyliov, the situation may quickly spin out of control and become critical to Ukraine. Because of the nature of its current government, Ukraine is now much weaker and the situation is much worse.

Ukraine is not strengthening its position in Crimea, while Russia, in contrast, is constantly stepping up its efforts, primarily in terms of propaganda, information wars, cultural and ideological attacks, and so on. The background for all these processes was set in 1992 when Russian MP Yevgeny Pudovkin suggested to Russia’s Supreme Soviet Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov that Russia put forward tough territorial claims against Ukraine. Khasbulatov was frightened: “But this would mean a war with Ukraine?” Pudovkin calmed him down: “It may be otherwise. If there is a position, there will be a compromise.” In fact, because Russia had a position, it was able to reach a beneficial compromise, while Ukraine lacked a position and many of its negotiations ended in something very similar to failure.


Since the very beginning of the struggle over Crimea, the Ukrainian government underestimated the importance of the Black Sea Fleet which became a tool in the Kremlin’s confrontation with Ukraine. Myroslav Mamchack, a veteran of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, recollects: “By the time Ukraine proclaimed independence in 1991, the Black Sea Fleet was a rather powerful military organization and force. It had nearly 100,000 personnel, and some 60,000 more people worked at its enterprises and institutions. The fleet’s infrastructure extended from Ukraine to Bulgaria, Moldova, Russia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. The Mediterranean squadron was always on standby. The Black Sea ports from Izmail to Batumi hosted 833 warships, vessels and boats… And all this force with its human resources was turning against the Ukrainian state in an effort to deny Ukraine an outlet to the sea.”

Official Kiev did not interfere with the situation in the fleet throughout autumn 1991. The cause of creating a Ukrainian fleet in the Crimea was pursued only by the Officers Union of Ukraine and the Prosvita Society. The command of the Black Sea Fleet started identifying pro-Ukrainian activists and expelling them from the fleet. This was only understandable, because nearly 95 per cent of the officers in the General Staff of the Black Sea Fleet were prepared to swear allegiance to Ukraine by the end of 1991. Admiral Igor Kasatonov, who was appointed by Moscow to replace Mikhail Khronopulo, admitted as much in his memoirs.

This was the time when the Ukrainian government had to act promptly, energetically and resolutely. Yet, those who held the top posts in Kyiv where incapable of such actions. Instead, on 30 December 1991, the Ukrainian delegation in Minsk recognized the Black Sea Fleet as a strategic force, which it never had been either in the Russian Empire, or in the USSR because the Black Sea basin is closed by the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. This meant that Russia would continue to control it. The Kyiv officials never realized that the fight for the Black Sea Fleet was, in fact, a fight for Crimea and Sevastopol which, in its turn, would define the future of Ukraine as a fully sovereign state.  This limited perspective was fully reflected in the positions which then-Foreign Affairs Minister Anatoliy Zlenko adopted in negotiations with Russia. While the Russians viewed the Black Sea Fleet as an exceedingly important military and political tool with which to protect their national interests, Zlenko and his commission did not recognize its significance. Their stance could be summed up as “We don’t need a fleet; a couple of boats will be enough.”


The war propaganda has never subsided in Crimea. Opponents of Ukraine elaborated two main topics: the miserable life of Crimea within Ukraine and the great blessing of becoming a Russian or independent territory. Surprisingly, those who are close to Mohyliov’s working group now say that all the socioeconomic problems in the Crimea have to do with a lack of autonomous power. Under Meshkov, the Crimea was a de facto independent entity, and the socioeconomic situation was much worse than today. This explains why the Crimean population calmly accepted the removal of Meshkov from power – their standard of living greatly deteriorated under his rule, even though he travelled far and wide, even as far as Taiwan, promising them a shower of foreign investments. But he never found people crazy enough to risk investing in a Crimea under his rule.

Mohyliov’s aides now assure that the new status of the Crimea will not trigger separatism, but this is like the assurances of Serhiy Kivalov and Vadym Kolesnichenko that their law on languages will not harm Ukrainian.

The Meshkov period was convincing and vivid proof that separatism does not improve life for the average Crimean. No attempts to make the Crimea either a criminal region or a bureaucratic-nomenklatura preserve distanced as far as possible from the centre solved any problems. Instead, they created new ones and pushed the peninsula to the brink of an armed conflict, triggered internal hostility and provoking conflict between Ukraine and Russia. The main headaches of the Crimea are not much different from the problems faced by other regions of Ukraine: inefficient management, total corruption, criminalized economy, absence of efficient civil society mechanisms, etc. The Crimean experience is proof that the so-called federalization of Ukraine could only split the country into two dozen feudal bantustans where a handful of local top officials and criminal bosses (in many cases, these are the same people) would enjoy life, while the majority of the population would see no future whatsoever. These territories would be exploited and their riches embezzled with no opportunity for positive development.

Natural, recreational and labour resources would be pumped out of these bantustans by more organized neighbouring states, while Ukraine in general would become a place for the unobstructed realization of foreign economic and political ambitions. At the same time, the productive forces of the state and its population would deteriorate. The impudence and impunity of the local “elites” would approach feudal lawlessness. The case of ex-MP Lozynsky, who killed a villager for trespassing on his private forest, would seem trivial compared to what we would see in Ukraine’s semi-sovereign bantustans ruled by regional bandits. In the absence of true democracy and the rule-of-law, federalization and autonomization inevitably lead to the degeneration of regions, the breakup of the country and the loss of its lands, which would go to neighbouring states.

Losiev Ihor

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